I recently returned from attending TIMTOS, the Taiwanese international machine tool show. Having last been there four years ago, it was remarkable to see how much Taiwan's builders had improved in such a short period of time.
While some people here would like to write off the Taiwanese as low-cost imitators of basic technology, that old impression doesn't begin to convey what is happening on the island today. The whole industry is rapidly moving to CNC-based technology. The top builders have already been there for quite a while, and have made major strides in developing original design and engineering capability. Through a government- and industry-sponsored initiative, Taiwan now has its own home-grown PC-based control technology, and is working to build the commercial infrastructure to make the other components of the servo and control system as well.
Now I have to admit that, while I admire the determination of such nations that collectively seek to build a stronger industry in this manner, they do worry me a bit. After all, we've never mustered a national initiative to build any industry, save defense. And for these nations, machine tools are just part of the plan. They also want to make cars, and airplanes, and appliances, and many other of the end products that fuel our manufacturing base. How do we compete?
Then I think about companies like Hartzell Propeller in Piqua, Ohio. A respected name with a wonderful history in American aviation, Hartzell didn't seem to need a world class manufacturing operation to maintain its enviable market position. Yet they decided to build one anyway, and over the last three years have achieved a spectacular transformation of their shop floor. And I think of so many other American firms that similarly have fought their way back to world-class competitiveness through their own hard work and ingenuity.
We'll no doubt continue to see more nationally encouraged industries make their runs and this, the world's largest consumer market. And they'll likely achieve some measure of success. But in the long run, I'll bet my money on Hartzell and other like-minded companies against all comers.
If you'd like to read more about the re-engineering of Hartzell Propeller, see The New Model for Short-Order Manufacturing of this issue. It's an inspiring story.